40 years of curiosity. The pioneering collaboration between Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art celebrates its rich history and future potential

IDE40 and roaring twenties in the 21st Century

The challenges of the Global pandemic coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Innovation Design Engineering (IDE) double Masters course. A pioneering collaboration between Imperial College and the Royal College of Art. The idea of a 21st century roaring twenties as we emerge from the pandemic is gaining currency. Fuelled by pent up energy and innovation opportunities resulting from the 4th Industrial revolution, we're looking forward to the next 40 years.

IDE can trace a direct line back to the first Industrial revolution, the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the institutions at the heart of Albertopolis. In our 40th year we can explore the role of innovation, design and engineering in creating beneficial impact for society and the planet. Consider the prospects and responsibilities for our talents and the processes relevant for the predicted roaring twenties and beyond.

40 cases

In the spirit of looking backwards and forwards the IDE40 anniversary activities reference how past generations of artists and designers have innovated in the quest to express themselves across borders in trying and unusual times. From 18th century Pandora dolls and the post-war Theatre de La Mode to Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte en Valise and Andy Warhol’s time capsules, these cabinets of curiosity were portable formats that transcend both time and space to share progress and creativity.

The IDE40 cabinets of curiosity are 40 cases provided by Samsonite, each containing and representing a project, a venture, a collection of projects, a notable individual or dynamic teams. As individual cases, and as a complete collection, sharing the story of achievements and future potential for innovation, design and engineering.

IDE40 cabinets of curiosity will be launched throughout 2021 and supported by a series of online talks, exhibitions - and when pandemic restrictions allow - physical events in Albertopolis and around the world.

Paul-Ewing & Margret Thatcher

The History of IDE 1981-2011

Dr Paul Ewing wrote the following history for the 30th anniversary of the IDE programme in 2011. We reproduce the piece here in full.

'On Monday 6 October 1980, after six years of planning, a unique course in design education began at the Royal College of Art. This pioneering, postgraduate course in Industrial Design Engineering was conceived by RCA Professors’ Misha Black and Frank Height and brought to fruition by Professors’ Hugh Ford and John Alexander from Imperial College. The course was jointly planned and run by Imperial College and the Royal College of Art and was the answer to Prince Albert’s ambition for the Great Exhibition of 1851. His vision was for a South Kensington Estate of colleges and museums and for them ‘to be a place where institutions of science and art can work together for the benefit of manufacturing industry’.

The course was conceived with the sole aim of improving the design of British consumer and industrial products by teaching graduate engineers how to design. The RCA provided the design expertise and studio space and Imperial the formal engineering lecture programme and workshop facilities for building functional prototypes. The students were to be funded by the 1851 Commission with profits of the Great Exhibition, along with RCA and Imperial bursaries.

The planning stopped - and the course started - when seven students assembled in the Level 3 Design Studio of the Royal College of Art on that October Monday morning, thirty years ago. With them were Professor Frank Height, RCA’s Course Director, Mike Starling, Len Wingfield, Imperial’s Course Director Dr Cyril Laming, and Paul Ewing. During this first year, the Joint Academic Board appointed Paul Ewing as the Coordinating Director.

Of the seven students, only four passed into the second year of which three, Andrew Douglas, Phil Seeney and Roy Tam, were awarded the Master of Design RCA and the Diploma of Imperial College, with Chris Lowe being awarded the Master of Design. These students survived the drastic change from the teaching methods used in engineering to the revolutionary methods of the new course, which married engineering skills with the expertise of the industrial designer. In 1981, four students joined the course, followed by eight in 1982, five in 1983 and eleven in 1984. The annual intake from the outset was set at fifteen to seventeen students and this figure was met from 1985 through to1988.

This new departure in the UK’s design educational methods caused great interest following the Royal Society of Arts Inaugural Lectures by Frank Height and Cyril Laming. Both design and engineering educators visited the first Degree Show in 1982 to view the work presented by the graduating students. Revolutionary working prototypes with supporting models were on view - ranging from a Yacht Rigging Cutter, a Sewing Machine to a CNC Lathe. Engineering Today and Design magazine both published major articles on the course and its output. In September 1983 Channel 4’s documentary Design Matters showed staff and students outlining the philosophy and teaching of the course. In 1985, the Centenary of the City and Guilds College and the Engineering Faculty of Imperial College were celebrated with the Technology 2000 Exhibition. The IDE students’ work, ranging from a folding bicycle, a fully enclosed motorcycle and domestic products controlled centrally from a home hub, figured highly. Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, showed great interest and highly praised the students work saying it should be used as a model for improving British products. Without doubt, this put IDE on the worldwide map. Interestingly, the folding bicycle is still in production today and leads the world in units sold.

In 1985 Frank Height retired and Ian Sinclair took over the reins. He was succeeded by Nick Butler in October 1987. Cyril Laming also retired and Dr Andrew Amis was appointed IC Director, with Paul Ewing continuing as Coordinating Director. This was a period of stabilisation and expansion, with Imperial College providing some studio space. Meanwhile, graduate students were busy making their mark in design consultancies and companies worldwide. A number of graduates were working for James Dyson developing cyclone cleaners and some had joined IDEO, a worldwide product design consultancy. Others had chosen academic careers and were teaching design in universities.

Staff changes brought David Carter to the RCA to head up the course from both the IC and RCA sides, and in 2000 John Drane took over the role alongside Imperial’s Roger Hibberd. The course was blossoming with the standard of work improving year on year. The student intake became more international with greater diversity in first-degree subjects and moves were also made to change the degrees awarded to an MA and MSc.

Tom Barker, a graduate of the course in 1991, was appointed professor in 2003. He set out to change the course’s name to reflect the changes for the 21st Century, increase student numbers year on year, introduce a global project, develop more project building space at Imperial and form a doctoral research programme. The course kept its IDE brand, but the ‘I’ was changed from ‘Industrial’ to ‘Innovation’ to account for the changing nature of the course’s projects. The global project involved taking all of the first year staff and students to work with staff and students from an overseas university for six weeks. They had to conceive, develop and manufacture a group of products and then sell them in their home countries. The Go Global project started in 2006 with a visit to China and in successive years the students worked in Thailand, China, Japan and Ghana.

Imperial College’s IDE space has expanded and moved to the Skempton Building. Imperial appointed their first Professor of Engineering Design, Peter Childs, who now heads up the course with Professor Miles Pennington from IDE, RCA. The intake in October 2010 will be thirty five, which demonstrates a five hundred percent increase in thirty years. IDE now has PhD and MPhil students, with a further three joining the doctoral research programme this October.

The future is exciting, with students now having very diverse, academic backgrounds resulting in an eclectic mix in the group projects. Finally, there are embryonic plans to launch an international nomadic project, making the Innovation, Design and Engineering course truly global.'

Paul-Ewing & Margret Thatcher

IDE 2011-2021

Pictured right, above, alongside Miles Pennington (IDE Head of Programme, RCA, 2009-17), Professor Peter Childs, FREng, IDE External Examiner 2001-2007, IDE Head of Programme (Imperial) 2008-2019, IDE Professor at Large 2019-20XX and Founding Head of School, Dyson School of Design Engineering, Imperial College London has contributed the following update to IDE's history. Bringing us up-to-date and our 40th year.

Industrial to Innovation

Any history needs to consider the past, the present and the future. The modern form of IDE has strong roots in a series of approaches and interventions initiated by Tom Barker in 2005-8 and embodied by the team led by Miles Pennington 2008-17. IDE had developed a worldwide reputation for producing innovators who thought differently and could create impact. The notion of a T shaped innovator who had cross-disciplinary skills but also in-depth skills, developed traction and became a dominant culture in the programme, at least for a period. This combined with exploration in areas such as experimental and disruptive-market-innovation served to not only give students a set of skills but also an identity that they could embrace. The identity was embedded through the rebranding from Industrial Design Engineering to Innovation Design Engineering, retaining the IDE moniker and securing a double-masters qualification for the students, graduating with an MA from the RCA and MSc and DIC (Diploma of Imperial College) from Imperial.

A philosophy on its own may not be enough for a programme or initiative to flourish, even it has strong foundations. Arising in part from the location of the students’ studio, combined with the rich depths of the local culture, the IDE programme centre of gravity had traditionally been associated with the RCA. Initiatives to challenge this, partly from the staff team, began to see a series of changes that have had a profound impact on the programme. One of these was to locate a student workshop and seminar room (the original Pink Room) predominantly associated with the programme, at Imperial. This led to substantially more traffic between the institutions and a common comment at the time was that the IDE students had ‘discovered’ Imperial, with its labs, experts and depth of resources. Imperial academics also ‘discovered’ IDE through hosting students in labs and the arising collaborations.

The Power of Exhibitions

The RCA has a rich heritage and strength in curation of shows, its annual ShowRCA being the go-to design event. In 2012 and 2013, as part of the Olympics and Para-Olympics, Imperial was sponsored by Rio Tinto to develop an initiative called the Sports Innovation Challenge. One of the activities was to develop a series of innovations for the para-Olympics and it was decided to show the outcomes in the Exhibition Road entrance to Imperial. With footfall of several thousand students, staff and public passing though the exhibition each day, combined with worldwide media exposure, the Imperial community was further and delightfully exposed to IDE and vice-versa. Indeed, this period can be seen as pivotal in the subsequent development of the programme. Exhibitions of student work at Imperial became a common occurrence and the number of staff directly engaged in the programme from Imperial, and the RCA, increased. A sibling programme, Global Innovation Design was conceived and launched in 2012 aiming initially to provide students with a global context for design. GID has since developed its own distinctive identity and seen substantive success through start-ups such as Petit-Pli and Farewill.

Startup success

IDE has continued to be a hotbed for innovation with start-ups such as Concrete Canvas, Omlet, Curio, Gravity Sketch and Notpla, for example, making the transformation to successful SMEs. It is not unknown for graduates speaking of their year to note how their cohort has achieved 9 figure investment and equity in the associated companies. Prizes continue to be won by alumni from the programme with, as examples, RedDot awards for LiteLok and Orbel, the Dyson Award for the Tyre Collective, and NotPla and Pluumo were winners of the 2021 Hawley award.


2014 saw the formation of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial. The IDE programme was transferred from its Imperial home of over 30 years, in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, to the new School. The School moved into its newly refurbished building in 2017 and the nature of IDE to discover, explore and leverage resource was swiftly demonstrated as students from the programme embraced its new Imperial home, in addition to the historic roots at the RCA. The curriculum had morphed to be focussed on designing for people and stakeholders, the planet and environment, prototyping whether physical or non-physical, and always being progressive with purpose.

In 2019, a new head of programme was announced for IDE at Imperial, Dr Stephen Green, formerly of Fitch Worldwide, Samsonite suitcase success and Brunel University and, in 2021, a new head of both IDE and GID at the RCA is due to be announced. The programme can proudly celebrate its first 40 years with many accolades and achievements associated with the IDE alumni and the degree. The programme can also look ahead to ever more transformations and interventions for society.

Professor Peter Childs, July 2021

The IDE40 team